Friday, September 24, 2010

Rita Who? . . . Five Years Later

Today marks the five year anniversary of Hurricane Rita. "Hurricane who? What? When did that happen?" my northern readers might ask. Rita was the fourth most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, at one point a category five; a category three at landfall. She devastated southeast Texas/southwest Louisiana; Lake Charles and coastal Cameron Parish in particular. And who, besides the people who lived here and either survived or suffered evacuation even knew about it? No one. Why not? Because Miss Katrina slammed into New Orleans just a few weeks prior. The country was still reeling from New Orleans' devastation, still glued to the horrific television images of people stranded at the Super Dome and the Convention Center, of folks stranded on rooftops, babies dying in the streets, the Lower Ninth Ward submerged. The country was so overwhelmed with Katrina's nightmare, no one noticed Rita. She and her path of destruction were, for the most part, ignored by the national media. So how could we have known?

I moved here in 2007; two years after Rita blew through. I remember being shocked that there could still be so much visible damage, even two years later. Blue tarps covered wind-damaged roofs. Billboards and business signs blown out. Once vibrant shops and storefronts boarded up. In Cameron, we saw hollowed out houses, shredded remnants of curtains fluttering in busted out windows; bare cement foundations which used to support homes; small cottages and vehicles tilted askew, abandoned, in the middle of marsh grass. And I remember feeling guilty, because I never knew. I prayed for the victims of Katrina. But I didn't know about Rita. I sent money to help the victims of Katrina. But I didn't know about Rita.

Most every resident has a horror story to tell. Of flooded floors and ruined furniture, lost pets, tree limbs shoved through living room walls. Of sitting in traffic jams for hours during the massive evacuation, cars running out of gas or breaking down, blocking the roads. Of returning to stinking freezers full of rotting food, and dealing with overwhelmed, overworked contractors, and FEMA, Road Home, and insurance nightmares. No electricity for weeks. Schools closed for a month.

For many residents, it's hard to believe it's been five years -- I'm hearing that alot. For some, it still feels like yesterday. One can still see a blue roof here and there around town. A few FEMA trailers still dot the landscape. But for the most part, Lake Charles and Cameron have done an amazing job at recovery. My previous post is testament to that. And certainly, there has been some help; church groups and college students spending spring breaks to work on damaged homes -- thank God for them. But by and large, these resilient people of southwest Louisiana brought about their own recovery, neighbor helping neighbor. Because the rest of the nation simply didn't know.

For my Louisiana readers, what are some of your memories of Rita? And let's hope we don't see another hurricane like Rita, or Katrina, in a very long time.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Grand Reveal

Friday night, Lake Charles hosted the grand re-opening of the Lakefront Promenade and dedicated the new Speckled Belly geese fountain and Bord Du Lac marina.



There was always a walkway there, along the seawall, at least as long as we’ve lived here. And while the lake has always been lovely, the lakefront was rather plain and functional. The city of Lake Charles decided to spruce it up a bit.

Just as Pittsburgh years ago had to overcome its negative image of a grimy soot-belching steel mill town by focusing on technology, healthcare, and culture, so too Lake Charles strives to downplay the petrochemical plant image and does a good job emphasizing its southwest Louisiana cultural heritage through the art community, food, music, theater, and festivals.

So in the name of city beautification and I imagine tourism, they barricaded the walkway behind chain link fence running the length of Bord Du Lac (the street parallel to the promenade) and set to work. One year and 4.9 million dollars later, the fence came down and the palm trees went up. The city hired excellent contractors. It really is beautiful. Boaters used to have to tie up together along the sea wall for events. Now they have this terrific marina.

They hired a local iron artist, Josh Guillory, to make these creative lampposts, benches, and tables. Decorative pole lights glow at night in alternating multi-colors, pretty as Christmas.


In addition to all the cool new stuff, there remains many nifty older attractions; fishing piers, Millennium Park, the amphitheater, the PPG fountain (not quite the PPG fountain in Pittsburgh, but there are always kids playing and cooling off here in the summer.)


. . . the war memorials – this helicopter Vietnam War memorial is fairly new.


I love this giant American flag overseeing the east end of the lake.


To all my out of town readers, come visit so I can show off the new Lake Charles Promenade!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

He is the Egg Man

We’ve all heard the reports about horrific chicken farms, birds living their entire lives in tiny boxes, fed unnatural foods, for the sole purpose of laying large numbers of eggs. And the stories of old eggs touted as “farm fresh,” sold far beyond their sell by dates. It’s enough to make a person build a chicken coop in the backyard. Or, if that’s not possible, find a local egg man.

It required some time and effort. For awhile, I took my chances on finding fresh eggs at farmers’ markets. But by the time I got there on a Saturday morning, the eggs were often sold out.

Then I discovered that a friend of mine from the gym sells eggs. How convenient.

Gary Brown lives three miles down the road from me on five acres. He cares for 70 chickens, plus a slew of baby chicks. “I’m from the country," he says. "I grew up with it.” Gary, originally from Singer, has lived in southwest Louisiana his whole life.


Gary feeds his chickens twice a day . . .


. . . and collects the eggs each afternoon. The number of eggs laid daily depends on the time of year. In winter and spring, the hens might lay up to four dozen. In the heat of summer, only about one to one and a half dozen. The chickens roost at night in the hen house, and roam outside, free range, during the day. Gary buys his feed from a local farmer, so depending on how the farmer grows his corn, rice, and other chicken scratch, I’d like to think the eggs are “organic,” but more important to me is knowing that the eggs are fresh and not from a disease-ridden fowl prison.

One of the biggest problems in chicken farming is dealing with predators. Fox, coyote, raccoons, opossums, owls, and chicken hawks. Gary tells a story of the time he once collected the eggs in the dark. He stuck his hand into a nest to pull out an egg, and grabbed a black snake instead. He once scared off an owl by setting off firecrackers. He’s shot raccoons and relocated chicken hawks (they’re endangered and thus protected.) A hurricane fence keeps out the fox and coyote. In case a predator sneaks in during the night, Gary keeps a baby monitor in the coop.

Does Gary eat the chickens? “I can sell a chicken at auction for $17.00, and buy a fryer from the butcher for $3.00.”

In addition to the chickens, Gary keeps a couple of turkeys . . .


a bunch of ducks and a peacock . . .


an emu . . .


two dogs, a black cat . . .

and a horse named Cinnamon.


From the Egg Man’s farm . . . to my kitchen.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Common Senses

Maybe it’s my imagination, but I feel like my senses are heightened here in Louisiana, and not only the basic five. It’s curious that, for some reason, folks here are exceptionally directionally tuned in. We always know, and it seems to be important to know, which way is which . . . north, south, east and west. It’s as if, when you live here for awhile, an internal compass develops. And this awareness quickly becomes instinctual. Maybe it’s simply because the city lies more or less on a grid, so it’s easy. Maybe we’re all more aware of the sun. Maybe it’s a need to know -- where is the coast and where is the country.

When I’m outside, on a walk or riding my bike, I take note of the wind direction, feeling it on my skin and looking at the leaves on trees for signs of flutter. Unlike in Pennsylvania, where one takes wind direction for granted – it’s always from the west – here it can come from any direction. Every day is different.

My other senses have blossomed, as well. When I lived in Pittsburgh, I wasn’t too keen about spicy food. I shied away from the little red peppers on the menus at Mexican and Asian restaurants. But after living in Louisiana for three years, I say bring it on. Tony Chachere’s, Tabasco, and jalapenos. The spicier the better. To a point.

The scents in Louisiana keep my nose twitching. There’s petroleum processing at plants along I-10, leaking septic tanks in my neighborhood, cow manure and road kill on my bike rides. Oh, never mind that. The jasmine and magnolia make up for it. A steaming pot of gumbo on a cool winter day. Satsumas fresh off the tree.

A colorful Louisiana sunset, the stillness of a bayou, a fallow field shrouded by morning fog, the rollick of a zydeco band, the braying of a herd of donkeys on a farm one mile behind my house, a bucket of boiled crawfish with corn on the cob and potatoes . . . I soak it all in like the soft sandy soil here drinks in the rain.

What are some of your own favorite sensory experiences, wherever you live?